Happy New Year and welcome to Terra Firma’s 2024 CSA! We are excited to see that we are delivering quite a few more boxes this week then we did the last week in December.  If you’re a new subscriber, welcome! And if you’re an existing member who hasn’t gotten a box in a few weeks or months, we’re glad to see you back.

If you’ve been a subscriber since before 2016, you may remember that at that time, I was discussing the potential impact of a new state law that proposed to change the rules for overtime pay for agricultural employees. A new study from UC Berkeley examines the effect of AB 1066, which  took effect in 2019.  Spoiler Alert:  It has not accomplished what the authors hoped, but rather, the opposite.

January is a good time for me to write about this study, since it is one of the slowest months of the year for work on farms.  For decades, the rules governing agricultural overtime had acknowledged this seasonal nature of farm work by allowing 60 hours of work before overtime pay kicked in as opposed to the 40 hour rule in most other workplaces.  Overtime hours are paid at 1.5x regular wages.

Labor advocates claimed that having different rules for agriculture created a double standard and made farm employees “second class citizens”.  They argued that the playing field should be leveled, and that doing so would improve the lives of the workers.  But the idea of a 40 hour week came out of a labor movement of blue-collar workers in factories or other indoor workplaces.  Most white collar workers in offices are largely exempt from overtime rules and are paid salaries, due to the distinctly different work environment.  Yet somehow the idea of a “green collar” overtime rule appropriate for outdoor workers and their seasonal work flow was simply unacceptable.

Back then, I actually went to the California Assembly and testified that changing the overtime rule would end up cutting annual income for farm employees.  I explained that farms don’t provide full-time employment in the winter — even  a farm like Terra Firma that produces crops all year.  Despite our relatively mild weather, farm work slows dramatically between November and March due to rain and cool temperatures.  Simply put, there just isn’t that much work to do.  Agricultural workers have always relied on extra hours in the summer to make up for the hours they don’t work in the winter.  I also explained that farmers simply would not be able to pay overtime for 20 hours per week.  They would cut production, shift to less labor intensive crops, or hire more staff.  But the result would be fewer annual hours worked — and less annual income — per employee.

The assemblymembers on the committee I testified in front of clearly did not understand anything about farming.  They told me I was wrong, that farmers would pay the overtime and the workers would not see their hours drop.  One legislator asked me repeatedly why farmers don’t pay employees for hours missed in the winter.  She apparently didn’t know that farmers aren’t allowed to pay most of their employees on a salary basis.

The results of the U.C. Berkeley study, which looked at data from 2019-2002, might surprise the authors of the bill (if they read it) but will not surprise anyone — employee or employer — in agriculture. Simply put, employees are not receiving many overtime hours, are working fewer hours per year, and are making less income than they would have made if the rules had not been changed.

Terra Firma harvests crops year round, so our team works more in the winter than most agricultural employees.  We don’t work on rainy days, but if we get rained out one day, we can shift that day’s work to Saturday.  Unfortunately, wet weather in California generally comes 3-4 days at a time, especially in years like last year.  During an average winter, our crew works about 35 hours a week. But during very wet winters like last year, it’s far less than that.  Missed work days mean less income for both the farm and our employees.

This winter, so far, has been much more “considerate” in this regard.  The rain we’ve had has mostly come on weekends and, amazingly, while the farm was closed for the November and year-end holidays.  We haven’t missed a single full day of work, although folks have gone home early a few times.  But if you’re paying attention to precipitation amounts, we’re well below average — not something to count on or expect annually.

Well-intentioned but poorly thought out regulations like the Agricultural Overtime rule harm both businesses and the general public in California.  Unfortunately, politicians in our state rarely correct their mistakes or even admit they made them.  This is a glaring example of legislation that should be repealed immediately, but I don’t have much hope in that outcome.